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January 19, 2014

Varied costs follow warning standards

Sirens, reverse-911 calling at issue

TERRE HAUTE — Opinions vary among county officials in the Wabash Valley over establishing a statewide emergency-warning protocol.

Proposed legislation in the Indiana Senate would cover both storm sirens and the new technology-based “mass notification” systems that send automated warnings to cell phones, landlines and other devices.

No state has a uniform standard method for sounding those public sirens, nor is there a nationally accepted protocol for issuing the all-clear notifications following disasters such as tornadoes.

“I am in favor of a statewide policy,” said Tim Wilson, president of the Vermillion County Board of Commissioners. “I think [a state protocol] would make it more uniform for the public to know what is going on,” he said.

“We have sirens, and have the capability of reverse 911, but we have not implemented that,” Wilson said. Vermillion County has at least 10 sirens remaining from an alert program enacted when the deadly nerve agent VX was stored on a former military base near Newport, he said.

Parke County has 13 sirens, seven owned by the county and six town-owed sirens, said Jim Meece, president of the Parke County Board of Commissioners. The county-owned sirens are also a remnant of the VX warning system.

“We are really in pretty good shape. We maintain the sirens … and test them the first Wednesday of every month,” Meece said.

Establishing a statewide protocol, he said, could be a good way for state officials to learn about warning systems in counties. “However, I am never comfortable with the state mandating counties do something without funding. Unfunded mandates kill little counties like us,” he said.

Monitoring counties’ compliance could cost the state $400,000, but the cost to counties for implementation and maintenance is uncertain.

Judith Anderson, Vigo County Commissioners board president, and Mike Ciolli, board member, said they are against such a protocol, and instead favor keeping control over such procedures at the county level. Vigo County uses a reverse-911 system, as well as media, to inform county residents of an impending weather concern.

“I think that we should be allowed to use our system at our discretion,” Anderson said. “Should there be a protocol as to when that should go off or when that should not? I am not too sure that should be a state thing,” Anderson said.

Ciolli agrees.

Weather conditions can be different from county to county and from location to location, he said, adding county officials can best determine a problem situation.

“Our system, while you have to sign up for it, tells people exactly what is going on, whether an abduction or a tornado or whatever,” Ciolli said. “They should leave the decision [of how to use such warning systems] up to the county executives.”

Indiana State University maintains and operates two warning sirens, one on its campus and one at a family housing facility on Third Street in Terre Haute. The sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of each month at 11 a.m.

“We already have a policy” for the sirens, said Joe Newport, interim ISU police chief.

“ISU is compelled to immediately notify the campus community when we have confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation that involves an immediate threat to the health and safety of students or staff,” Newport said.

The sirens are part of a larger notification system on campus, Newport said, that includes text notifications; instant pop-up messages on computers linked to the campus; recorded messages to telephones; and messages placed on live TVs operating on campus. Warnings also go up on the university’s website, Newport said.

Ray E. McCammon, president of the Sullivan County Board Commissioners, and Paul Sinders, president of the Clay County Board of Commissioners, each said they could support a uniform protocol, as long as it does not fiscally impact counties.

“I think it could be a good idea to have a standardized warning system statewide and nationwide. Our county needs more sirens. We would have more of them if we could afford them,” McCammon said.

Hoosier Energy operates warning sirens, designed to warn of a release of anhydrous ammonia. Those sirens are tied into the county’s warning system and can be used in the event of severe weather, McCammon said. The county, itself, maintains a warning siren atop a tall federal housing building, he said.

“I hope that if they implement any kind of practices that there is funding to go along with it” from the state level, McCammon said. “We have already lost a lot of revenue,” he said.

Clay County does not operate or maintain warning sirens and does not have a reverse 911 notification system, either, Sinders said.

“I think you could argue either side of the fence on this,” Sinders said of the proposed legislation. “There could be statewide rules and regulations, but I would also think that many counties would want to issue their own systems, depending on the weather conditions,” he said.

Sinders said either way, funding must be provided if counties are to make any changes.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com.

CHNI Indiana Statehouse reporter Maureen Hayden contributed to this report.

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